My last post on how to be better patients to each other stirred up some conversation—turns out (once again) that despite differences in diseases and symptoms, many things unite us, especially when it comes to waiting rooms, hospitals, and emotionally-charged situations.
As a follow-up to that conversation, I want to explore an issue one of my readers brought up in the comments section, something I touched on very briefly in the post—the idea of illness as a competition. “Illness isn’t a competitive sport” is the exact phrase that comes to my mind, and until very recently, I wondered how widespread the phenomenon was. Was it a dirty little secret of life with chronic illness, something that occurred in waiting rooms across the country? Or was it something more unique to the particular doctor’s offices I frequented? Judging from the initial response, I suspect the former is the case.
You know what I’m talking about, right? You’re sitting in your chair, perhaps leafing through a magazine or engaging in idle conversation with other patients in the room. Somehow the conversation around you turns into a bizarre sort of one-up-man-ship, with patients swapping war stories, surgery tales, and escalating degrees of complaints. The tenor has changed from surface-level camaraderie to a competition.
It’s an interesting phenomenon. I’ve never seen it get to the point where there’s almost a fight over whose symptoms are the worst, as others have mentioned, but I have seen it get pretty intense. Most times I ignore it, but sometimes it gets to me and I cannot wait to be called back just so I don’t have to hear it. It’s stressful to sit there and listen to so many things that are wrong. After all, everyone’s got something, or none of us would be there.
My reaction has always been, who would ever want to win the “sick” competition? That just doesn’t seem appealing to me, or worth it, or in any way productive. And I have to believe that no one really does want that title.
Obviously illness can be really isolating, so maybe people are just lonely and need some place to vent. Maybe they’re in a tough phase of acceptance or adjustment and their symptoms are especially overwhelming. Maybe their illness is a huge part of their identity and in the moment, someone else’s condition is somehow a threat to that identity. Who knows. But I don’t believe there’s any maliciousness or mean-spiritedness in it, and I don’t think it’s even an intentional escalation or competition.
And I think it’s just normal human nature to hear something and think, “You think that’s bad, how about X?” I know when I’m at my rheumatologist (which, for whatever reason, is where it happens the most) and listen to the back and forth I sometimes think about someone I know who’s had multiple major (invasive) surgeries and excruciating, degenerating pain and think these people are actually pretty lucky.
And clearly that’s not fair of me. Other people’s pain and illness are still very real and altering even if they don’t seem as severe as someone else’s. (And I say “seem” because really, you never know what someone else life or situation is truly like.)
At the same time, I’ve also felt funny even coughing at my lung specialist’s because I know there are some seriously sick people treated there, people waiting for transplants to save their lives, people who cannot live without constant oxygen, people I know are so much sicker than me. (They’ve never made me feel that way—most don’t even talk, it’s just a self-consciousness I feel).
And that’s not fair either, because this isn’t a competition and no one need apologize for not being as sick.
And I think the reason both those instances aren’t fair is what I will call Rule #7—No one has a market on suffering. Especially when we're at the doctors, and we're probably all a little anxious, and no one's feeling all that well.
Especially when you consider the saying posted over on Hemodynamics:
"Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting their battle too."